As a cartoon series, "The Simpsons" is just about perfect. Between great gags, imaginative plot twists and a sure eye for telling details, it never seems as two-dimensional as most animated entertainment.
As cartoon characters, the Simpsons are equally impressive. Though their look is straight out of the funny pages, their sense of identity is credibly complex. The show often seems more lifelike than any flesh-and-blood sitcom.
But as cartoon pop singers, the Simpsons are a bust.
Sure, "The Simpsons Sing the Blues" (Geffen), which will be released today, is fun at first. What with Homer's simpering "Born Under a Bad Sign," Lisa's gutsy "Moanin' Lisa Blues" and Bart's already-climbing-the-charts "Do the Bartman," it's hard to imagine the Simpsons fan who wouldn't be charmed, at least momentarily. And when the "Bartman" video debuts Thursday, at the tail end of this week's episode, the album is sure to take off like a rocket.
But is "The Simpsons Sing the Blues" really true to the spirit of the show?
Frankly, no. For the most part, what this album actually sounds like is "The Voices Behind the Simpsons Sing the Blues." Granted, Dan Castellaneta (Homer), Nancy Cartwright (Bart) and Yeardly Smith (Lisa) sing with an unexpected confidence and agility, hitting all the notes and even getting down at points.
In fact, the only Simpson who can't carry a tune -- apart from Maggie, who can't talk -- is Marge (Julie Kavner). But even that gets glossed over by the album's studio-savvy production.
Still, staying in tune is no substitute for staying in character. Thus, though Lisa might well want to try a jazz classic like "God Bless the Child," there's no way Yeardly Smith's gutsy interpretation could have come from an 8-year-old. Nor does Marge seem particularly believable remaking King Curtis' "Memphis Soul Stew" into "Springfield Soul Stew."
As for the Bartman, it's easy enough to imagine him rapping his way through the perky "Do the Bartman" and the jokey "Deep, Deep Trouble." But dropping him into Chuck Berry's "School Days" makes little sense -- can you see Bart singing about romance? -- while his duet with Lisa on "Sibling Rivalry" seems both overblown and out of character.
Ironically, the only number on the album that works on bot levels is "Look at All Those Idiots," featuring tycoon J. Montgomery Burns and his loyal toady, Smithers (both played by Harry Shearer). It's tuneful, funny and utterly believable.
But who in their right mind would buy a Simpsons album to listen to Mr. Burns?